“To lower people’s exposure, there is a need for more awareness-raising and regulatory action.”
Ninja Reineke, Head of Science at CHEM Trust
CHEM Trust is a charity that works at European, UK, German and International levels to prevent synthetic chemicals from causing long-term damage to wildlife or humans, by ensuring that chemicals which cause such harm are substituted with safer alternatives. CHEM Trust is also a member of the HBM4EU Stakeholder Forum.
Ninja Reineke, Head of Science at CHEM Trust, holds a degree in chemistry and a PhD in the analysis of marine pollutants. She previously worked for WWF on EU chemicals policy for almost 10 years before joining CHEM Trust in 2013. Her main work areas are EU regulations on endocrine disrupters and persistent chemicals. She also works at the science-policy interface to ensure the most up-to-date science is reflected in regulation, e.g. on combination effects and human biomonitoring studies. Since December 2018 she is the Chair of the Management Board of CHEM Trust Europe, based in Hamburg, Germany.
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CHEM Trust is protecting people and the environment from harmful chemicals. Which are the main areas CHEM Trust is taking action on?
CHEM Trust’s focus is on the identification of, and action on, endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Complementary areas of work include advocating for better protection from chemicals with other harmful properties, such as persistent chemicals, and addressing hazardous chemicals in food contact materials. We also work on key chemical issues, such as mixture effects.
Bisphenols, phthalates, PFAS, brominated flame retardants, etc. are EDCs – chemicals that interfere with the hormonal system and can, for example, impact development and reproduction – that are studied under HBM4EU. How will you use that new data coming from HBM4EU?
In our view, these groups are an important priority of HBM4EU, because so far only a few of the problematic substances from each group have been restricted, while the others are still widely used in daily consumer products. We shouldn’t forget that they were never meant to be found in people and wildlife in the first place.
CHEM Trust regularly highlights new results and insights from research findings, using new data in our communications to the public as well as in our contributions to current policy discussions. The importance of HBM4EU data is that it shows that these chemicals are present in peoples’ bodies. It demonstrates that it’s an issue we are facing in real life and that it affects people and can contribute to health impacts. To lower people’s exposure, there is a need for more awareness-raising and regulatory action.
What do you think is the added value of the HBM4EU project? What benefits is bringing to people’s lives?
The HBM4EU project has significantly advanced method development, harmonization of lab procedures, capacity building and increased quality assurance as well as cooperation among all relevant institutions in the field. It also confirmed that several chemicals are present in humans simultaneously, increasing concerns due to potential combination effects. It will be important to ensure the continuation of a strong EU human biomonitoring component in the follow-up EU research project, PARC. Measuring the trends of the body burden of the general population is an important tool to assess whether legal restrictions, authorisation and other risk management measures have the desired effect, as well as to flag new concerns.
The best benefit for people would be for HBM4EU data, to be used for more precautionary decision-making and to speed up the regulation of hazardous chemicals. To avoid further contamination of our bodies in the future, we cannot wait to measure all substances in people. By then it’s usually too late and you cannot get the chemicals back.
In your view, what Brussels and its EU’s regulatory system should do to protect citizens against EDCs?
It currently takes decades to identify and control harmful substances, with the recent re-assessment of BPA being a case in point. The revisions of REACH and CLP must accelerate the identification of substances of concern and apply more group restrictions in a precautionary manner.
The systematic underestimation of mixture effects, resulting from the combined exposures to many substances from multiple sources, must also be addressed. Human biomonitoring data can provide some insights here, even if the number of chemicals analysed will always be limited due to lack of resources or when methods are not available.
It is also important to keep in mind that while human biomonitoring data can flag relevant trends or find new substances of concern it should never become a prerequisite for action. We know that exposure starts in the womb, and we cannot wait for biomonitoring data before taking action.
How to ensure that the most up-to-date science is reflected in regulation?
We need research that can answer regulatory needs and the HBM4EU project has made some good steps in that direction. In the coming months, it will be important to draw on the main lessons learnt from HBM4EU and adapt future scientific work accordingly. In general, a stronger involvement of academic science to feed into ongoing consultation processes for new policy development would also be desirable.
Do you think that the European Commission roadmap for a Chemicals Strategy (CCS) for Sustainability is a real game-changer?
The CSS has the potential to set Europe on a new path for better protection from toxic chemicals. It contains many important elements including action on the identification and control of EDCs and taking account of mixture effects, and provides a real opportunity to solve the problem of continued use of the most hazardous chemicals. The Commission has made a good start in implementing this strategy, but it is vital that the regulatory processes set out by the Strategy are not subject to delays, and that the ambitions are not weakened by some parts of the industry.
What do you recommend to people to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors and other hazardous chemicals in everyday life?
Try to limit the number of different products you use (such as cosmetics, toiletries, and cleaning products), as this will reduce the range of chemicals you may be exposed to. Avoid products with fragrances, as these can contain hazardous chemicals that are not listed on ingredients lists. Do not heat up food in plastic packaging, as plastic containers can contain harmful chemicals that can leach into food and drink. Opt for products with ecolabels (such as the EU Ecolabel) and use consumer information apps, as this can help you avoid some hazardous chemicals. For more tips and recommendations check out the CHEM Trust website.
Difficult to get hold of information about what chemicals are used in what products…What do you advise?
Certain mobile apps can help you identify products containing chemicals that you should avoid. You can also request information from companies on substances of very high concern (SVHCs) in their products.
However, people shouldn’t have to become chemists. They need to be able to trust that products are free from hazardous chemicals, and this is why the EU needs to strengthen the current regulatory protection gaps.
The HBM4EU project was launched in 2016 with the aim of improving the collective understanding of human exposure to hazardous chemicals and developing HBM as an exposure assessment method. The project had €74m in funding and jointly implemented by 120 partners from 28 participating countries – 24 EU member states plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Israel and the European Environment Agency. One of its aims was to ensure the sustainability of HBM in the EU beyond 2021. The project ended in June 2022. The website will not be updated any longer, except the page on peer reviewed publications, but will be online until 2032.